I've always loved to spin a good yarn. Most good stories, if well-told, need no additional embellishment; they can stand on their own. In the rare instance that a story needs a little help to make it even better, I am your girl. I am willing to give it that little extra oomph if it really needs it, which, as I stated, is rare.
When I was only five years old or so, my next door neighbor's house caught fire. When I first saw the flames and ran inside to tell my mommy to call the fire department, she didn't believe me. I was known, even then apparently, to love to tell a good story. Despite my insistence that I was telling the truth, my reputation as a great story teller prevailed. The house burned to the ground.
I assure you, however, that the following account is true--every word of it.
When I lived in Vancouver, Washington, many years ago, my family attended New Heights Church. Although nothing like it is now, even then, it was a huge church with multiple service times all packed to the rafters. At least once a year, the church would rent out the amphitheater at the county fairgrounds or a high school football stadium or the like and do church, all together, at one time. These were the only facilities that could hold the entire congregation at once, and these special occasions generally included incredible music by a huge and lively band, a well-prepared sermon, and lots and lots of riotous bust-a-gut fun. It wasn't unusual to see dozens of beach balls released into the crowd to bat around--things like that. This last Sunday was the New Heights big summer event at a local stadium. I saw news of it online and the publicity for it looked very much like I remember: very professional, very large-scale, very organized down to the last detail, and very, very fun. I wish I could have gone.
But I was busy. Not only was I several hundred miles away here in Montana, I was at a different church's summer celebration.
I was at Barnyard Church.
I don't think that's what they actually call it, but it was my first time there, so I don't really know for sure. My son's friend's family, the Wards, live here in the immediate area and are great folk. Tano stayed with them while we were in Las Vegas last month and attended their church on the Sunday he was there. His report was that the church, which met in a hotel conference room, was very small but nice, and that we should all visit as a family sometime. Well, we are looking for a church home right now, so when the invitation showed up in the mail that the Wards' church was going to have a special outdoor service that would meet at their house, followed by a potluck BBQ afterward, we decided we should take the opportunity to not only support our friends, but check out their church at the same time. The flyer said to come at 10 AM. I made a pot of beans to share and we drove off to the Wards' house.
When we arrived, Noah, Tano's friend, was busy chasing a grey goose who was honking with apparent annoyance and spreading his formidable wing span as he trotted ahead of the gangly teen. Tano informed us that the goose was named Steve and that he was really mean. Noah was trying to herd him into an enclosure so he wouldn't charge and attack all the church people pulling up and parking in the pasture. Two big dogs and one small yappy dog barked ferociously from behind a fence. A dozen or more free range hens scattered before us and clucked contentedly, unconcerned with our presence, as we walked toward the house.
We were told to go around to the other side of the house, where they had set up an assortment of forty or so folding chairs, camping chairs and plastic patio chairs in the side yard, a pretty little grassy courtyard surrounded by trees and informal shrubbery. A ten by ten foot canopy tent was placed at the front with a simple wooden podium beneath it to offer a little shade to the preacher. Mr. Ward seemed to be scrambling for more chairs and we happened to have our own camp chairs in the back of the van, so we pulled them out and parked them in the back behind the last row of chairs already set up. To our delight, we discovered that we had sat on the raspberry side--that entire side of the yard was lined with raspberry bushes--thornless ones--so that throughout the entire service, children and adults alike were periodically reaching into the bushes and popping ripe red raspberries into their (our) mouths.
The service began with a hymn from the battered green hymn books that had been passed around, and then the teenagers (eleven kids, ages 11-17) were dismissed to go have a special class with the pastor on the other side of the yard. They carried their chairs off with them. Mr. Ward began to teach the remaining adults, except for a couple of women who had taken the small children into the house for their own class.
He opened in prayer, cleared his throat, and suggested that we might all say a prayer for an easterly breeze, so we wouldn't have the smell of the three large hogs as part of our service. It was true that every time the breeze shifted, the distinct smell of a hog enclosure wafted our way. I know this smell well, as we also have hogs. Tano chose swine for his 4-H project on the advice of the Wards, who have raised hogs successfully for years.
At one point, the breeze began to blow out of the west quite consistently and Mr. Ward apologized for the less than pleasant smell. "That's ok," someone called out cheerfully, "It smells like dollars!" Everyone laughed. We are a farming community.
It was at this point that the real barnyard circus began. Steve escaped from his enclosure and began to run menacingly toward the church goers. Noah sprinted from the teens class and intercepted the evil goose, herding him back toward the pen and repairing the broken spot in the fence. Mr. Ward continued to teach. The roosters, not wishing Mr. Ward to get all the attention, stood in the back and began to crow. Loudly. Mr. Ward talked on.
One of the hens began to rustle around in the bushes to one side of the little congregation and found a perfect place to lay an egg. She made quite a noisy show of her business, prompting Mr. Ward to leave the podium briefly and crawl around inside the dense bushes to try to find her and relocate her to a more remote nesting site. She wouldn't be found however. Emerging, Mr. Ward had to briefly go in the house to change his shirt and clean the blood off his ear, which he had caught on a sharp branch in his quest. The hidden hen continued joyfully singing the praises of her newly laid egg.
The flock of sheep added their own chorus next, a soft and muted bleating from a little way off, but still loud enough to fit with the theme. The dogs joined in again to round out the choir and the Wards' daughter, Allie, was dispatched to make them quiet down.
Mr. Ward looked a little flustered, and sweat glistened off his forehead, but he continued talking.
A tell-tale honking told us all that Steve was back again, and not at all happy about being penned up. "Oh, shoot!" Mr. Ward lamented with a certain amount of alarm, "Both of them are out! Noah! The Steves are out!" Poor Noah came running again to take care of the problem.
They have two mean-spirited geese, both named Steve. How can you not love that?
Noah spread his arms wide and expertly maneuvered the Steves back once again--this time to stay. They didn't get out again all morning.
Mr. Ward kept up with his attempt at teaching.
The hogs, who had been napping contentedly in their dusty pen, awoke as if on cue and began to rumble around and converse with one another. Their soft grunts and dog-like barks provided just enough background noise to fill up the rest of the teaching time, and their aroma floated across the property to our little courtyard. Blasted westerly breeze.
At last, it was completed. A few announcements were made; the teens returned from their class; the little ones were brought out from the house; and the parishioners rose to their feet, stretched and began to greet one another with fondness. We stood somewhat awkwardly, having not many familiar faces to greet and wondering when the food would be served. We weren't alone long, though. The regular attenders were exceptionally friendly and everyone introduced themselves to us. Children scampered into the raspberry bushes to find the berries that others had overlooked, and adults reached up to pick ripening apples off the trees, polishing them with their shirts before munching them noisily.
I thought I would be helpful and had begun collecting the hymnals when I realized that everyone was headed back to their seats. That had been Sunday School. The regular Sunday service was now about to begin. My mistake. I discreetly passed the hymn books back around before most had found their seats again.
At this point, the process began again. The pastor preached and the animals interrupted. The Steves could only honk in frustration from afar, but the hens and roosters were free to wander about and make quite a racket, this time in the raspberry bushes next to us. The sheep and pigs conversed among themselves quietly and the dogs barked at the sheer novelty of having so many people present. As the sun rose high in the sky, the cicadas and the grasshoppers joined in with a steady humming noise, and the song birds took up the singing where we'd left off in the song books. An occasional ruby-throated hummingbird even swooped low over the crowd to steal a little glory. Oh, and traffic picked up on the narrow, two lane road that runs past the Wards' house. Old Ford trucks in need of mufflers and four-wheeled ATV's and occasional tractors rumbled by frequently, making it hard to hear from where we were in the back, even without the chorus of barnyard animals.
The preacher was very good, compelling to listen to, but also fairly long-winded. He went on for an hour and a half or so, until just after 1:00, by which time our rumbling stomachs were involuntarily giving the animal noises a run for their money.
By the time the final amen had sounded and women began to scurry toward their vehicles to pull out covered dishes for the potluck, and men began to light up the bbq grills, I was all smiles. It was likely not the church for us, but it had been charming in its own way. How many have ever attended church in a barnyard? How many have had the privilege of picking and eating fresh fruit during service? Who has ever met a pair of naughty geese, both named Steve?
I felt that I had been a part of something special, something unique. It was definitely something that my old city friends, who were at that very moment sitting in the grandstands of a stadium, singing along with a professional-sounding band, with a professional sound system as part of a well-orchestrated service that had been planned out to the very smallest detail, would hardly believe could possibly be true.
But it was. Every bit of it.
With an oink, oink here and an oink, oink there;
an amen here and an amen there...